In school, I used to be very fond of sciences. Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects. For some time, we had an excellent chemistry teacher, Mr. W., who was quite quirky in some respects (but that is another set of stories…) but very good at teaching chemistry.
Then I got chemistry lessons with Mr. H. This man, as I heard, had not had any real training in chemistry or sciences. He had done something connected to agriculture, so he knew a little bit about soil chemistry and things like that. After World War II, when many teachers where dead or where still prisoners of war, he had become a teacher, based on this insufficient training. This is when his tragedy began. He might have become an excellent and happy gardener or farmer, but becoming a teacher turned out to be a grave mistake.
The students did not take him serious at all. We joked that he was always only one page ahead of us in the chemistry textbook. He was unable to keep any discipline in the class. To my dismay, one could learn absolutely nothing in his lessons. However, his lessons were always funny. The students sprayed distilled water at each other and made all kinds of fun. Mr. H. was sometimes trying to cover his inability behind experiments with bangs and stenches and fiery or colorful effects. So intellectually there was nothing much there, but there used to be some kind of show. Many students also laughed about him, since he gave us plenty of occasions to do so. Quite regularly, we had “guests” in the course, students from other classes skipping their lessons to come over to Mr. H.’s famous chemistry classes because they could always expect some fun here. Mr. H. noticed the faces that did not belong into the chemistry course but was unable to send them out.
One day, he came into the chemistry class room with the schools Kipp’s apparatus. Now, if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kipp%27s_apparatus) and get an explanation how this ingenious device works. Such a device looks a little bit like a snowman, here is a picture of one:
All you need to understand for this story is that the device consists of two parts, the upper part (the round thing on top) and the lower part (the base and the middle ball in the picture). The upper part is just tucked into the lower one. At the junction, there was a sealing ring made from rubber or something like that.
Or, in fact, it was not there. The sealing ring was missing and that is why Mr. H., when he tried to explain to us how the device worked, could not demonstrate it. So he had ordered a replacement ring.
And now, he came into the room with the Kipp’s apparatus resting on his right hand, holding the top part with this left. “I told you last time about the missing sealing ring. I have ordered one. Look here, all the trouble was that this little ring here was missing”. On saying that, he pointed at the ring that he had inserted into its place between the devices upper and lower parts. He pointed with his right index finger.
Every science writer knows that each formula you put into an article halves the number of your readers, so I am sparing you the details of Newton’s law of gravitation. You all have an intuitive understanding of what gravitation is. The problem was that the lower part of the device, no longer supported by Mr. H.’s right hand, also somehow knew about gravitation, and, as a result, started going its own way: it fell. Now, Kipp’s apparatuses come in two varieties. Some are made from polypropylene (a kind of plastic) but the traditional ones are made from glass. This one was a traditional device. And, chemistry room floors tend to be quite hard…
With a loud clashing noise the heavy glass device shattered into countless pieces. A short moment of silence followed; then the whole class burst out laughing. For quite some time, we could not stop laughing.
Poor Mr. H., his face becoming redder and redder, stood there, the top part of the device still in his left hand. He was stuttering something, then declared the lesson to be over and sent us out of the room. This was probably the worst moment in this poor man’s terrible and disaster-filled life as a teacher.
Thinking back, I can only pity him. Laughter can be a very aggressive affair and I think it was spiteful of us to laugh in this situation, but somehow, no other reaction was possible for us teenagers. Our training for this kind of situation had consisted of watching slapstick movies, and here was a real life event that no film author could have conceived of better. I have no idea what had happened to the sealing ring.
The feeling of empathy only came later. I think this should have been the appropriate reaction, but our society is somehow brutalized, and as young teenagers we were no exception.
I saw him again on some school reunion several years later. An old man, now pensioned, bent down by some kind of rheumatism. I greeted him and we had a short chat. I think he did not deserve the terrible experiences that his professional life had given him. He was harmless. He was actually a friendly man. I don’t think he is still alive. May he rest in peace.